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I just found out the other day that September is Deaf Awareness month.  It’s exciting that there’s a whole month dedicated to learning more about deafness.  In honor of that, I’m going to jot down a few things that several of my Deaf teachers have said happen frequently to them that they consider extremely rude, or think people are nuts for doing.

First of all, there are two polite ways of getting a deaf person’s attention.  If they are accross the room from you, you can wave your hand at them, or ask someone near them to tap them on the shoulder.  If they are near you, you can feel free to tap them on the shoulder yourself, by using one finger and tapping two or three times.   Don’t wave your hand in front of someone’s face, don’t ever throw things to get someone’s attention, and don’t tap someone’s arm incessantly until they turn around.  Let’s face it, you wouldn’t like it if someone tried to get your attention those ways, so don’t do it to others and they’ll appreciate it a lot!

If two people are signing to each other and there’s no way arround them except by going through their conversation, it’s OK to do so.  Just walk right on through as quickly as possible, and if you know the sign for excuse me, you can go ahead and sign it.  If not that’s OK too, just try to be as quick as possible.  If you try to go underneath their signing hands, people will look at you as if you’re nuts.  Not only that, but you’ve disturbed their conversation because they’re looking at you and thinking ‘what the hell?’ instead of briefly pausing to let you through, then resuming their conversation naturally. 

If you’re meeting a deaf person and you don’t know ASL, follow a few simple guidelines and your communication will be easier.  First, always look at them straight foreward, and don’t let your eyes wander like they would in a hearing conversation.  Don’t try to enunciate… it distorts your mouth shapes and makes it harder for a deaf person to lip read than if you were speaking naturally.  Let them use paper and pencil, or whatever you have lying around to write with and on, and admit if you don’t understand something.  It will save you lots of embarrasment later if you just admit you don’t know what they’re talking about, rather than agree to something you aren’t OK with or look like a fool by saying yes to something that isn’t a yes or no question.

So there you go… several simple things that will keep you from looking rude or completely nuts in the presence of deaf people.  Happy Deaf Awareness month!!

Alexander_Graham_Bell_Biography 180px-Alexander_Graham_Bell_and_family 225px-Alexander_Graham_Bell

ASLIt happens with every American icon, the fathers of progress, the day you realize that they weren’t perfect, that they had troubles in life too.  Some of them you also realize weren’t exactly good people either.  Walt Disney hired a lot of women specifically so he could pay them less, Henry Ford was anti-Semitic, and Alexander Graham Bell was heavily into Eugenics, to name a few.  I grew up hearing about all the wonderful things Alexander Graham Bell did for society, and it can’t be denied that he was a brilliant inventor who gave us the Telephone, among other things.  He looks like such a benevolent friend in his old black and white photos, his eyes twinkling, his bushy beard lying Santa-like on his collar with his smiling family surrounding him.  Add all this up with the fact that he started a Deaf school and you start to think he was a truly great man who was a wonderful advocate for the Deaf, however  the reality lies burried deeper in the facade of his perfect-on-paper existence.  Most Deaf people today think of Alexander Graham Bell as the less evil, American version of Hitler who decimated the cultural advances of Deaf people for decades.  So, which version is true?  A little of both.

At first glance, Alec (as his family called him) looks like he should be a great Deaf advocate.  Alec’s mother was deaf, and this made a huge impression on him.  He would sit near her when they had company and fingerspell to her so she knew what was going on, and he started his experiments in sound after he realized that she could feel the vibrations of his speech when he talked into her forehead.  Speech and sound was also the family business: Alec’s uncles and father were all Elocutionists, and his father had invented Bell’s Visible Speech, a set of phonetic characters by which it was thought that Deaf people would be able to learn to speak quickly and easily.  The family toured Europe, America, and Canada promoting Bell’s Visible Speech, which was later found to not work very well.  Still, Alec capitalized on his family’s association with Deaf people and founded a Deaf school in Boston which focused only on the Oral method.  He took private pupils as well and married one of them, Mabel Hubbard, with whom he had 2 gorgeous little girls, both hearing.  A well known figure in the Deaf community, Alec even had a book dedicated to him by Helen Keller.  Doesn’t he seem like the perfect Deaf advocate?

The truth is a little more complicated.  In reality, Alec’s mother was a woman who couldn’t admit to being deaf.  She insisted on being called Hard of Hearing, carried around an ear trumpet, and painstakingly learned to play a piano she couldn’t hear in denial of her deafness. This unfortunate attitude probably colored Alec’s perspective of deaf ideas, making him think that all deaf people felt badly about being that way and wanted to be hearing, a false idea still perpetuated today.  By insisting on using the oral method only in his school Alec created a situation in which the Deaf were as isolated from each other as they were from the hearing world.  He would sometimes have children’s hands tied behind their backs for hours if they continued to communicate in the only way they knew how, by signing.  Worse still, his foray into Eugenics produced a heap of debilitating ideas about Deafness that are still in widespread use 100 years later.  Alec railed against America letting in “undesirable foreigners” to procreate with the perfect American race, and insisted that English be made the national language, even at the expense of Sign Language which he claimed was not a real language anyway.  Though Alec didn’t promote forced sterilization himself, he belonged to plenty of organizations that did.  Instead, he  advocated for Deaf people being kept completely apart from one another.  He reasoned that if they could never meet, they would never marry, and would not have Deaf children.  The myth that most Deaf people have Deaf children is another one of the misconceptions still being refuted today.  I always feel a little melancholy for Alec’s deaf wife Mabel.  She must have lived a completely solitary existence, ensconced in her hearing family, denying her deafness.  Alec’s invention of the Telephone only made things worse for Deaf people.  He suddenly had an enormous pulpit of fame and influence from which to shout his damaging ideas, and he made sure to do it.  His ideas ushered in an era in which sign language was almost lost, Deaf people were isolated from each other, and many were denied employment. 

If you asked Alexander Graham Bell if he was a friend or a foe, undoubtedly he would have said friend.  He thought that he was providing deaf people with an important opportunity to be more like hearing people, even though it was something they didn’t want.  I’m sure he also would argue that his Eugenic ideas, if not popular, were at least creating a stronger human race.  While his intentions may have been harmless, there is no denying the damage he did to deaf equality for more than 100 years.  The ideas that deaf people can be easily taught to speak, that they almost always have deaf children, that they don’t want to be deaf, and that American Sign Language isn’t really a language, are all myths that were started by Bell and are still believed by a vast amount of hearing people.  The myths he perpetuated and the quest he started to keep deaf people from each other clearly place Alexander Graham Bell in the foe category.  I personally think deaf people are right to abhor everything Bell stands for, and I think if more hearing people knew about the negative impact he had on deaf society, they would abhor that too.  Perhaps being raised in the family business of Elocution made it inevitable that Bell would be on the wrong side of the issue.  It’s sad he couldn’t put aside his preconceived notions and listen to the deaf community all around him.

ASLI guess you could finally say I’m an Interpreting student this week.  Yay!!  I’m only taking 2 of the 6 classes I was hoping to add, but that’s 2 more classes than I had last week.  Trying to add classes, though, was the worst thing ever.  Basically I stood in the back of classrooms for two hours with twenty other people who all wanted to add as well.  The teachers would say “Oh, I’ll talk to adds after class”, so we would all stand there with desperate looks on our faces, clutching our paperwork and praying that we’d be at the front of the add line, but the sinking feeling in our stomachs telling us we weren’t.  The day I was the person who was supposed to be next just as they cut off the class was the day I went home and cried.  That much rejection is hard to stomach, even when you know it isn’t personal.  I’m back to my cheery self this week, and I’m able to pick out the good things I experienced last week among the awfulness.

I really love my department.  The admissions staff and anyone who is supposed to be there to help students is awful and incredibly rude, but the ASL department is friendly and funny… just wonderful.  All of the teachers are Deaf and conducted major portions of their classes (if not all of it) in ASL, and I felt for the first time like I was a hearing girl in a completely Deaf world, not a hearing girl in a temporarily Deaf environment.  It was fun.  I’m also proud because I got all of the jokes and understood completely what everyone was saying, which makes me think my ASL skills are improving a little bit.  I’m in classes with people who are advanced interpreting students now, and I can also see how far I have to go.  It makes me believe that it’s possible to get that amazingly fluent though. 

I’m excited to be there, excited to call myself an interpreting student (no matter how far I have to go), and excited to be back in school working towards a degree.  I feel like I’m accomplishing something, and I’m happy that it’s something I like doing.  I’ll be doing a lot of work this year too, writing papers on 4 Deaf Events and 3 papers on doing different Deaf For The Day experiences.  I’m excited to do those.  Deaf For The Day is something I haven’t done yet, and I wonder how all my reading will prepare me for the experience of trying to communicate without talking.  I’ve heard that people are rude, but I guess I’ll be finding out for sure soon.  I’m hoping I’ll become less self concious about making a fool out of myself when proabably I won’t.  We’ll see.  I think it will be an exciting semester…

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